Why is the state of Florida spending $50 million to build a cluster of scientifically questionable water-storage wells north of Lake Okeechobee?

The broader restoration project known as LOWRP intends to reduce the need for damaging discharges to the northern estuaries while also improving the ecology of the lake. On the surface, that sounds like a promising proposal to address northern water-storage needs required by Everglades restoration — but there are big questions about the unintended consequences.

The success of the project relies heavily on the costly implementation of 80 “aquifer storage and recovery” (ASR) wells north of the lake, projected to store up to 146 billion gallons a year that would then be available for recovery during times of drought.

Concerns abound regarding the large-scale implementation of underground water storage. A review by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) urged caution regarding unknown ecological impacts of the ASR wells and the possible risk of detrimental changes to water quality during aquifer storage.

Water injected into the ground is in danger of contamination by naturally occurring pollutants like arsenic, and research into removing contaminants from recovered water remains unclear, especially at the scale proposed. Floridians are already facing significant human health concerns related to current water management. The last thing we need is to exchange one unquantified poison for another.

With that in mind, the NAS has suggested a more careful approach of phased implementation of the wells, with thorough monitoring and assessment spanning the life of the project. Interestingly, the state found $50 million for this questionable project — expected now to be used to implement the first 10 wells. The project earned heavy support by a group of legislators not normally at the front of the line advocating for water-friendly legislation (Ahem, where have you been all this time, Gayle Harrell?).

In addition to the many questions about the wells’ viability, there are legitimate capacity concerns. Environmental advocates point out that ASR wells pump too slowly to respond to sudden surges from storms, thereby adding a complex layer without solving the system’s biggest problem–toxic Lake Okeechobee discharges.

Even if operated at full capacity every day of the year, the proposed 10 wells are each only capable of holding 1.8 billion gallons. Compare that to the estimated 80 billion gallons of excess water from Lake O discharged to the St. Lucie River between June and October in 2018 and this starts to feel like another expensive, over-engineered boondoggle with little chance of offering the intended relief to communities downstream of Lake Okeechobee discharges.

To accomplish Everglades restoration, there is no question that additional water storage and treatment capacity is necessary throughout the system. But the parched southern Everglades won’t benefit from these wells north of the lake. That begs the question: Who does benefit? As usual, it would be wise to look to the special interests behind the politicians pushing them.

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